More On: Putin
The Biden administration is celebrating the intelligence community's performance during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, despite the fact that the war continues and US intelligence services continue to overestimate the military power of the Kremlin and underestimate Ukrainian resistance.
The most recent instance happened during a Wednesday conversation with Brett Holmgren, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, on former acting CIA Director Michael Morell's Intelligence Matters podcast. Holmgren stated that US intelligence agency operations during the Russia-Ukraine war will be considered among the best in US history. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made similar comments last week.
"A point I want to make is really to commend the intelligence community on the work they did in the run-up to the invasion, providing strategic indications and warnings about Russia's plans and intentions, which was absolutely critical — and I've seen it diplomatically in allowing the US to mobilize a unified response with our partners and allies immediately after the invasion," Holmgren said Wednesday.
"And so, Michael, I truly believe that the effort of the intelligence community will rank with the discovery of ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962 and the assassination of [Osama] bin Laden in 2011." This, I believe, will be the intelligence community's third big accomplishment."
While the intelligence community has long regarded the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba as one of its crowning achievements, some experts contend that the Cuban missile crisis should also be considered an intelligence failure.
SEAL Team Six carried out the CIA-planned US special forces raid against bin Laden, killing the 9/11 mastermind in Pakistan after a ten-year quest.
Ukraine was invaded following weeks of warnings from Biden's intelligence community that Russian President Vladimir Putin was poised to invade.
Morell gently rebutted Holmgren's assertion that the intelligence operation was a tremendous success, stating: "My understanding was that the IC was expressing what I believed — that the Russians would be able to reach Kyiv rather fast."
Holmgren acknowledged the intelligence community's need to learn from past mistakes and detailed how it miscalculated Russia and Ukraine.
"I believe that if you compare the sheer numbers on paper of Russia's soldiers, military forces, and capabilities to those of Ukraine, there is no distinction. I mean, it's a dizzying distance between two," Holmgren said. "And I believe that many of our analysts — I speak with a number of them on a regular basis — viewed Russia's military through a more traditional conventional lens, but what we've seen with the Ukrainians, due to their courage and incredible willpower to resist this invasion, is a bit of a surprise, not only for the intelligence community, but for a lot of people."
"So I believe there is an opportunity for us to reflect on what transpired," he continued.
Morell asserted that "willingness to fight is far more crucial than competence to fight," and Holmgren concurred.
Milley made a similar case before the House Armed Services Committee, stating, "This war has possibly been the greatest effective intelligence operation in military history, and it is quite remarkable." And that narrative will be told someday."
However, Gen. Tod Wolters, head of the United States European Command, stated that the US had made some errors in its assessments in Ukraine.
Wolters cited "the desire and drive of Ukrainian citizens," but said, "you only have to look at the Russian military's capability to see that there are obviously problems."
Republican Representative Scott DesJarlais enquired as to the general's level of worry "about what looks to be intelligence failures."
"The environment of a twenty-first-century intelligence officer is quite challenging," Wolters explained. "I believe that once we get the facts about how this evolved, what was said, and what was accomplished, we owe it to one another to go back and examine our weak points."
"This one has been perplexing as a result of Russia's challenges and the spirit of the Ukrainian people, and their contributions were definitely areas that we need to look again," the general continued.
In March, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that "we did not perform as well in projecting the military challenges that [Putin's] force has encountered."
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the Defense Intelligence Agency's director, went further, saying that his judgment of Ukraine's willingness to fight was flawed: "My assessment was that, based on a variety of variables, the Ukrainians were not as prepared as I believed they should be. As a result, I questioned their willingness to fight. That was an error on my behalf, as they have fought valiantly and courageously and are doing the right thing."
Berrier stated about Putin, "We made some assumptions about his assumptions that proved to be extremely incorrect."
Additionally, Wolters stated that one of Putin's motivations for entering now was the hope of exploiting NATO divisions following the Taliban's swift conquest of Afghanistan. Milley stated earlier this month that "it is entirely possible" that the collapse of Afghanistan influenced Putin's decision to invade.
Milley reportedly warned Congress in early February, behind closed doors, that Russia could seize Kyiv within 72 hours of invading. By comparison, both Milley and Vice President Joe Biden appeared to exaggerate the Afghan army's strength.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president, said in a Thursday video message that his people should be proud after enduring 50 days of Russian attacks, despite the fact that the Kremlin "gave us a maximum of five."
According to the New York Times, US intelligence agencies anticipated the Russian military would be able to take over Kyiv in two days.
"Had we known in advance how powerful the Ukrainians would be and how weak the Russians would be, we could have prepositioned more equipment and facilitated the flow of help to the Ukrainians," independent Sen. Angus King, another Senate Intelligence Committee member, told the outlet in March.